State legislatures and the U.S. Congress typically have the lowest approval ratings of any government branch or agency, and last week the Alabama Legislature showed exactly why that is.
The same state legislators who made their own pay raises part of the state constitution and are subsequently receiving more than a $2,000 pay raise this year for their part-time job, have decided our state employees aren’t deserving of a pay increase this year.
It isn’t a question of money. The budget passed by the Alabama House of Representatives is holding back $97 million “for future needs and uncertainties,” while the cost of a four percent pay increase would only be one-fifth of that (about $19 million).
Never mind that state employees have seen their health insurance premiums and other daily expenses increase but haven’t received a cost-of-living pay raise since 2008.
State retirees have also been left out of any pay raises – including merit raises – and have also seen their healthcare premiums go up.
But instead of giving our state troopers, court employees, first responders and other public employees a long overdue pay raise that they’ve more than earned, legislators have chosen politics over people.
Last year, the legislature chose to use money from the BP oil spill settlement to bail themselves out of another budget crisis. But that money will run out after this year. That means next year (which also happens to be an election year), the legislature will be forced to raise taxes or cut popular or necessary state programs like state parks and driver’s license offices.
In order to avoid voter backlash during the elections, legislators are choosing to delay the inevitable until after the election by holding back that $97 million this year to bail them out next year.
But here’s the thing: if we gave state employees a 4 percent pay raise, we would still have $78 million that could be carried over to next year to soften the blow of losing the BP money.
And by next year, hopefully the Joint Legislative Budget Task Force will have completed its work and presented some ideas for cost savings that can make up the difference. After all, some members of the task force have publicly stated they believe they can cut as much as $100 million of wasteful spending out of the state’s budget. If they are even half right about that amount, that would save more than twice what is needed to give state employees a pay raise.
It’s been nearly ten years since state employees and retirees last saw a cost-of-living pay increase. Since that time, the cost of a gallon of milk has gone from $2.65 to $3.98, the cost of Tide detergent has more than doubled, and the cost of a pound of ground chuck has jumped by 26 percent!
While the cost of living has gone up, state employees' paychecks have actually gone down because in addition to seeing their health insurance premiums increase, the legislature voted to increase state employees’ contributions to their health insurance.
On top of all this, the legislature’s budget cuts mean that retiring employees are not being replaced. That means a lot of state employees are now having to do two or even three people's jobs.
We are asking state employees to do more for less money and with fewer resources, and that in turn is impacting public safety. We need another 200 state troopers at a minimum to patrol our highways and keep them safe. The shortage of troopers is one of the reasons Alabama’s highway fatality rate is twice the national average.
The lack of mental health care professionals is keeping us from preventing violent crimes and also contributing to our recidivism rate (i.e., people going back to prison after serving their initial sentence). This is a major reason for our prison overcrowding problems, and it’s also costing the taxpayers millions of dollars every year.
Our shortage of DHR professionals is making it harder to help children trapped in abusive homes and for babies to get adopted.
And the cuts to our judicial system have slowed our criminal courts down, denying victims and families justice and closure in a timely manner.
State employees are not a bunch of lazy bureaucrats sitting back collecting some fat, taxpayer-funded paycheck and benefits. These are hard-working people who pay their taxes, shop in our local businesses, and provide a critical service to our state. They haven’t received a pay raise in nearly 10 years, and the fact that they aren’t getting one this year when we clearly have the money is an outrage and an injustice!
Alabama House of Representatives. He served as the House Minority Leader from 2010-2016.